Friday 22nd March 1912
Born on this day, Leslie Johnson, British racing driver who competed in rallies, hill climbs, sports car races and Grand Prix races.He specialised in European sports car endurance events, competing in five Le Mans 24-hour races, two Spa 24-hour races and four Mille Miglias. He also took part in five Grands Prix, and broke several world speed records for production cars.In sports car racing, he achieved Aston Martin’s first postwar international victory, and also the first successes for Jaguar’s XK120 model in both England and America.
His business ventures included the acquisition of British racing car manufacturer English Racing Automobiles (ERA) after World War II. He also initiated and negotiated Stirling Moss’s first commercial sponsorship deal, with Shell.
Among his close friends were Jaguar founder William Lyons (to whom he lent his BMW 328 for detailed mechanical investigation during the planning and design of the XK120) and Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix engineering supremo Rudolf Uhlenhaut. (Johnson used three Mercedes-Benz road cars: 300SL “gullwing,” 300 “Adenauer” saloon, and 220S “ponton” saloon.)
His worsening heart condition finally forced permanent retirement from competition in 1954. He bought a farm in Gloucestershire that included three houses: one was for himself and his family, one for his farm manager, and one for his bank manager. He continued to run his Maidenhead-based company Prototype Engineering, which produced precision components for the fledgling nuclear industry. Towards the end of his life he developed a keen interest in the “Sport of Kings” and owned several racehorses.
Doug Nye recorded motor racing photographer Guy Griffiths’s personal recollection of Leslie Johnson:
“[Q]uite the most charming, friendly, unassuming and courteous man in motor racing… [His] furniture factory [was] an extremely paternalistic, caring concern, in which long-term employees were looked after virtually to the grave. When they became too old for their regular work they might be put onto lighter duties for a lesser wage, but there’d always be something for them, Johnson made sure of that.
“When he acquired ERA Ltd and re-established it at Dunstable he [employed] a number of old lags from pre-war racing who were looking for a job postwar. When he drove the E-Type, I think in the Isle of Man, Reg Parnell wandered over for a chat with Johnson, and absent-mindedly gave the car’s steering wheel a tweak, to discover VAAAST free-play. ‘You can’t race this Leslie, you’ll kill yourself’. ‘Oh yes, well, it takes a bit of getting used to but you know, the boys have worked so hard to get it ready I really feel I ought to give it a go…’.
“He apparently never complained, he was a very buttoned-up, stoical, philosophical chap…his final illness was very quick, and extremely painful for him, yet he never let it show […] He was regarded as being straight as a die…a good fellow.”
He was married to the widow of Anglo-French driver Pierre Maréchal, and stepfather to her son Christian Maréchal, an advertising copywriter, UK ultralight aviation pioneer and freelance journalist.
Leslie Johnson died in 1959, aged 46, at Foxcote House, the family’s home in the village of Foxcote, Gloucestershire, England.